In a secured penthouse hotel conference room in Doha, Qatar, I gazed at a nervous young man. His eyes, dark and fearful, darted back and forth at our team of prosecutors and forensic scientists. It was our first introduction to this master sergeant in the Syrian army who had defected to escape the horrors of the war in Syria. We code-named him “Caesar” to protect his identity. He was certainly a marked man.
It was January 2014. The government of Qatar had asked me, along with the late Sir Desmond DeSilva and Sir Geoffrey Nice, to help figure out what to do with a defector from Syria who apparently had brought out tens of thousands of high-definition photos of the tortured dead. Qatar wanted to know their authenticity and whether this was viable evidence of international crimes. Collectively, the three of us had decades of experience investigating and prosecuting those who commit war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
We all arrived in Doha somewhat skeptical of what this frightened Syrian soldier had brought out of the conflict zone. In international criminal law, it’s rare to have direct evidence of a dictator committing international crimes.
Caesar’s journey began in 2011. As a forensic photographer in the Syrian army, his job was to photograph deceased individuals at a military hospital near Damascus. As the civil war devolved into an all-out conflict, the numbers of deceased individuals steadily increased and bodies were stacked like cordwood in the parking lot of the hospital. More worrisome was the condition of the bodies: emaciated, and showing signs of extreme torture. Caesar became so concerned that he reached out to a friend of some members of the Syrian opposition. He told them he would be willing to make copies of the photographs and smuggle them out on a memory stick in his shoe. He was introduced to his case officer/contact and, over two years, smuggled out an estimated 54,000 photographs of around 11,000 bodies.
Finally, in September 2013, Caesar could not take it anymore and signaled that he needed to leave. A cover plan was concocted; he would be “killed” while crossing enemy lines. They even held a mock funeral for his family. While this was going on, he was smuggled out of Syria with the memory sticks containing the photographs, through Jordan and into Qatar.
We sat in the room sizing up Caesar. Initially we just wanted to hear his story and assess his demeanor. We then spoke to his case officer, who told his own story of the operation. After the initial interviews, the forensic team took the photographs for review. That evening, after dinner, we each gave our initial impressions of Caesar and the photographs. Our goal was to determine whether there was reason to believe all this was real and credible. If we had any doubts we would end the review and go home. We were not going to be parties to a propaganda charade.
None of us on the team, legally or scientifically, had any reservations about what we had before us. Caesar was a credible witness and the forensics showed direct evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Our forensic pathologist, Stuart Hamilton, told me the photographs were authentic; they were not staged or faked. Dr. Hamilton explained it would be harder to fake the moon landing than to land on the moon, and it would be the same for these photographs.
We all agreed to open the review. Our plan resulted in the Caesar Report, published a few weeks later. The world was astounded at the first direct evidence of an industrialized killing machine not seen since the Holocaust during World War II.
An attempt was made a few months later, led by France, to use our report and the photographs to get an accountability resolution by the United Nations Security Council to refer the case to the International Criminal Court. When we briefed the Security Council and showed them the photographs, many in the room had tears in their eyes. Later, however, Russia and China vetoed the resolution, ending, for now, any international effort to account for the crimes committed in Syria. A few years later, the U.N. General Assembly would create a mechanism to collect and evaluate the evidence coming out of Syria — with the hope that a future domestic, regional or international prosecutor could act. Caesar’s photographs are in a safe place to support any such future prosecution.
Caesar now walks the halls in Washington, seeking support for his efforts and for possible action against Syria. He told CNN recently, “I am pleading for the American people, for the United States Congress, for the American administration, to please save the Syrian people, save these people that do not deserve the hellish nightmare that they’re living in.”
A bill that would sanction leaders in Syria, and calling for an international prosecution for those who allegedly committed international crimes in Syria, languishes with the U.S. Senate. Various versions of the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act have passed the House since 2016 with bipartisan support. I have assisted in that effort, advising the appropriate committees and testifying next to Caesar to call for accountability.
It is time for the Senate to pass this act — to send an important signal to Caesar and the tens of thousands of victims of the Syrian conflict that their lives matter. The rule of law must be seen in this kaleidoscopic world to be more powerful than the rule of the gun. Caesar believed in this, and he had the courage to act in the face of the beast of impunity. So should the United States Senate.
David M. Crane, a co-author of the Caesar Report, was the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He served more than 30 years in the U.S. government, in positions including senior inspector general, Department of Defense, and assistant general counsel of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He is a professor and distinguished scholar in residence at Syracuse University College of Law.